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Holiday act in Portage includes ‘the best Christmas song you’ve never heard’

December 6, 2018

People who feel as though they’ve probably heard every Christmas song there is might want to consider attending “Tinsel and Twang: A Merry-cana Christmas” Saturday in Portage.

Tom Waselchuk, Jami Lampkins and their band, The Dang-Its, bring an extensive and in some ways unusual list of holiday material to the Zona Gale stage at Portage Center for the Arts, Waselchuk said.

“We’ll apply Western swing treatment to holiday standards, but there should be at least five or six songs that people have never heard before,” he said.

Their set list includes a Christmas song Waselchuk’s father-in-law — Dan Schuffman — wrote in 1954. Schuffman at the time worked as a producer at ABC television in the Chicago area and had also penned musicals, Waselchuk explained.

Schuffman’s Christmas song is called, “Christmas is Love.”

“It’s very much in line with Mel Torme’s ‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire’ (a.k.a. ‘The Christmas Song’),” Waselchuk said. “From the day he first played it for me, I thought the song was of the same quality as Torme’s song. It doesn’t sound like Torme’s song – it’s a totally different melody and form – but it has that laid-back, easy swing feel.

“I sometimes introduce it as the best Christmas song you’ve never heard.”

Waselchuk has for so long believed in the greatness of his father-in-law’s largely undiscovered Christmas song he once recorded it and planned to pitch it to record executives, “but the music industry has changed so much through the years — it’s so much harder to walk into a studio holding a tape.”

Waselchuk formed The Dang-its in the Madison area in 1998. He sings and plays guitar, while Lampkins, who joined the group in 2009, sings and plays guitar and banjo. The group is rounded out with a drummer, bassist, violinist and steel guitar player.

They open the country Christmas show with an instrumental version of “Jingle Bells,” featuring Lampkins on the banjo.

“(It’s) a really crazy version of the song that just zips right along,” Waselchuk said. The group also will play comedy numbers, including a funny take on winter in Wisconsin called, “Snow and Beer and Cheese” written by the folk duo of Lou and Peter Berryman.

“We all have our favorite Christmas songs that we look forward to hearing every year,” Lampkins said, “but we’ve taken an Americana spin to those songs and added some life and energy. We’re passionate about this and I think the energy we bring to the stage is contagious.”

“You won’t hear anyone saying, ‘Oh, I’ve seen that or heard that before,’” Lampkins said. “I’m really looking forward to seeing how the audience reacts to some of these songs.”

The group has put on Christmas shows every year since 2013, but has never performed in Portage. Lampkins always looks forward to playing music in new places — especially at Christmastime, she said. She’ll share silly stories with the audience regarding her Christmas memories growing up in Las Vegas — like seeing Santa Claus wearing shorts and Hawaiian shirts.

“Many of these songs really meant something to me growing up and I want to share that with the audience,” Lampkins said. “So on stage I want to make little connections with these people I don’t know – maybe at times seeing a moment of remembrance in their face or catching whatever affinity they might have for the song.”

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